Knights jerseys streak off shelves

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Forget the traditional blue-and-white of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Say goodbye for now to the storied bleu-blanc-rouge of the Montreal Canadiens.

With the lingering NHL labour lockout promising no end in sight, it appears most Forest City hockey fans will find the familiar green-and-white of the powerhouse London Knights under their Christmas trees this year.

Judging from the response of several key players in the local sports equipment and merchandise industry, the nation's No. 1 junior hockey team is helping pick up some of the slack for slumping sales of NHL jerseys as local shops head into the crucial holiday stretch drive.

"If someone would have told me three months ago that the London Knights would outsell the Toronto Maple Leafs, I would've said, 'No way, that's crazy talk,' " said Colin Hopper of London Source for Sports on Wharncliffe Road. "But it's happening. They're winning, they're getting nine thousand people (to the John Labatt Centre) every game and it doesn't hurt that the Memorial Cup is going to be held here this year."

While the Knights soldier on, NHL teams remain dormant and out of sight from the public eye. Their jerseys aren't being flashed on the TV screen every three seconds on channels like TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and The Score, not to mention Saturday nights on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. Every sports league's best marketing and advertising tool is clearly its games.

"If the Knights were blue-and-white and we could slap one of their logos over the Maple Leafs stuff, it would move very quickly right now," said Chris Payne, of Pete's Sports on Oxford Street. "We've noticed the sales of NHL merchandise has been a little bit down but the support for the Knights has been unbelievable."

For stores such as Pete's that carry a lot of equipment and cater to the active athlete's needs, the effect of the lockout can hardly be described as catastrophic.

"Kids are still playing the game, the NHL's situation doesn't affect them, and I don't buy that an adult won't go to their Sunday night rec league game because the NHL's out," Herm's Sports Exchange owner Terry Austin said. "No one has come in and told me they're not buying a jersey because of the lockout yet. If it goes on for a couple of years, maybe we'll see a bigger impact."

However, Brian Sweet, who manages Logo Sports in White Oaks Mall, is paying close attention to the decline in jersey sales because his store carries a lot of the NHL- licensed merchandise.

"It hurts. With the NHL, it's millionaires fighting with billionaires. And as a hockey fan and someone with a little extra invested in it, you just want to see them solve the lockout and get back to playing," he said.

"I think it's mostly the jerseys being hit. I don't think it's going to affect the sale of flags or whether or not someone buys a Montreal Canadiens garbage can."

Some business owners indicated that suppliers, already aware the demand for NHL products will be down this year, have told them they don't have to pay for their merchandise until spring or until after the lockout is solved.

"I haven't heard that but I do know it's harder to get some stuff," said Sweet. "They haven't made as much of the product."

For bigger sports stores that carry a small selection of NHL gear, not much talk has been heard about the lockout at all.

"Maybe it comes up the odd time in casual conversation with a die-hard fan. But no, not really too much," said Jason Pettigrew, a manager at Sport Mart in Masonville Place.

"We don't see a huge amount of decline -- maybe a little bit with the jerseys, but we're still selling the same amount of team T-shirts."

Hopper feels the biggest loss of the NHL's exposure is happening south of the border.

"Places like Columbus and Atlanta. Combine the lockout with the stronger Canadian dollar and you wonder if you'll hold onto that part of the business," he said."

As far as equipment goes, the stick industry in Canada has already dipped into the junior ranks for recognizable names to associate with its brands.

"Sher-Wood already has a Sidney Crosby stick in stores," Payne said.

"There isn't a Corey Perry model yet but I'm sure, as time goes on, if the lockout continues, there will be one out there on the racks."


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